Wright State 73, Valparaiso 62
The messages started blowing up my phone within moments of Valparaiso's shocking-to-anyone-who-hasn't-been-paying-attention 73-62 loss at Wright State on Friday.
"Why didn't Darien Walker play in the second half?"
Well, first off, Walker did play in the second half. He took the floor when Valparaiso was up 37-30 and exited when the game was tied 41-41. The senior didn't return to the floor until 1:39 left when the Raiders were up 63-57. Walker logged five minutes in the second half, so it's not like he was completely off the floor.
But yes, it's a good question. Why was the guy who was hotter than the sun and knocked down five 3-pointers in the first half suddenly essentially persona non grata during key stretches of the game when the Crusaders were struggling to get a good look?
Bryce Drew's philosophy in tight games is generally to stick with a group of five players for better or worse. He's often quoted as saying "I wanted to give this group a chance to win the game" or "This group earned the right to try and win it for us."
Drew said after Friday's loss that he had spent a lot of time subbing early in the game and second half and that he wanted to find a more consistent group that could "get a rhythm going." That group consisted of the starters who helped push the lead to nine on multiple occasions in the second half. Once Keith Carter got hurt E. Victor Nickerson took over the point. Shane Hammink, who has done so well running the point over the last several games, was pulled after turning the ball over with 12:24 remaining and never returned.
Drew clearly decided to stick with a set group of players down the stretch and that group didn't include the one player who kept Valparaiso in the game in the first half. I wasn't in attendance on Friday night and only had the radio to go off of, so it's hard to gauge if Walker and Hammink struggled defensively throughout the night. Judging by the amount of messages I received, plenty of Valparaiso fans were left frustrated by the fact Walker didn't get a chance to test his hot hand in the second half.
Donlon on Friday's game
I had the opportunity to speak with Wright State coach Billy Donlon late Friday night. Donlon, as always, had plenty to say regarding the game, the Horizon League season and Wright State's turnaround from a dismal 2014-15 campaign.
On going up against undefeated Valparaiso: "The first thing is you have to convince your players. You have to convince your players that they can do it. One of the many things that Valpo has going for it is that it has a body of work. It can point to things it has accomplished, games they've won. They have things they can point to when times are tough. Valpo has been dominant in wins in the league.
Our guys had to understand they could play with them. Our veteran guys, to be fair, they had confidence because both games last year were very tight. I think that helped. I was concerned on the glass. It's incredible what Valpo does with rebounding. They basically rebound one out of every two of their misses. Adding to that was that we play small so rebounding becomes even bigger. It was very important for us tonight that Michael Karena was able to play 32 minutes."
On the first half: "It was 6-0 with 15 minutes left and Valpo wasn't getting the shots that they're accustomed to getting. We were getting some pretty good looks. Now, we're only up 6-0 and I felt the score at that point should've been 15-2 in our favor, but it wasn't. That's not a knock on Valpo. The advantage we had coming in was we could change some things. Valpo is going to come in and be who they are, they're 16-3, why wouldn't you. We could change some things early and do some things differently. It was scary to be up 6-0 and feel like we should be up by more.
The second scary thing for us in the first half was that our guys missed seven layups. Three weren't hotly contested. We're not going to get seven layups in the second half. You can't miss shots against a team like Valpo.
Finally, our guys were way too emotional. Our guys didn't play a good offensive game. At halftime we actually said, "did anyone on Valpo play a good offensive half besides Darien Walker?" No. Not Alec Peters. Not Vashil Fernandez. Not Tevonn Walker. But you know what, we didn't play a good offensive half either. The reason? Both teams have really good defenses. We told them it's the guys that have short memory about their offenses that are going to win the game and our guys did that. That's nothing against Valpo or where their mentality was, but we were able to have a short memory."
On guarding Alec Peters: "You have to give a lot of credit to (J.T.) Yoho. He's able to take away a lot of the posting things. Yoho has speed on the perimeter and he's laterally quick enough. (Slowing down Peters) wasn't a scheme thing, it's just that we have a guy that can do the job and I say that respectfully. It doesn't mean the next time we play that Alec can't have 27 against J.T. (Yoho) is also a four-year player. We're not putting a sophomore on him. It's more to do with that and less to do with scheme. Those two guys, it's like they're looking into a mirror of each other."
On turnaround from last season/NCAA tournament/2013 title game: "I didn't have a doubt in my mind. I knew we had good players. That's the No. 1 reason, the No. 2 reason and the No. 3 reason. We have good players.
In the non-conference we had the 22nd most difficult schedule in the country. We were 3-7. We blew our second game and maybe gave away another one. Even at that point, with the schedule we had, the best we could've been was 6-4, maybe 5-5 because of how difficult the schedule was. Now our fans don't like to hear that, but that's the reality of it.
(After last season) I never lost faith in what we do. This league is really good, it's really hard. There are too many good coaches. Our program has been really solid and I know our fans really want the NCAA tournament. It's hard. It's hard to win a conference tournament. How many times have Hall of Fame coaches, and not to discredit any of them, but how many times have Hall of Fame coaches won a conference tournament? How many have Coach K or Tom Izzo won in their career. Not to take anything away from them, but how many times would they go to the NCAA tournament if they could only win their conference tournament? That's the life of a mid-major coach. That's the life we live.
I'll tell you this, I'll never ever in my life, I'll go to my grave...it's the title game at Valpo (in 2013) and we're up six with (5:18) left and we're in a timeout. I told my guys, now we had a really aggressive defense and I wanted to go for the kill. We were going to do something, but by the end of the timeout I called it off. I changed the call at the end of the timeout and the kids felt, the players felt it. Valpo scored and the rest is history. (Valpo scored 16 straight points) Now I'm not saying we would've won the game, but I'll always wonder about that. I know our fans really want the NCAA tournament. It's that close for all of us."
On approach to Horizon League season now that tourney is on neutral site: "The primary goal is the same. Winning a regular-season championship is a better measure than winning a tournament. Now, there is no question that getting a double bye (finishing first or second) is very significant for the reason that you're going to be playing your 40th minute when your opponent is playing their 120th minute."